Dental Health & Obesity: What’s the Connection?

July 5, 2016

In recent years, obesity among adults has increased at an alarming rate. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers this a global epidemic and claims that around 1.5 billion adults, 18 years of age or older, are affected by obesity throughout the world.  

Obesity is a central issue when it comes to contemporary healthcare discussion, yet there is little awareness of the problem. Even though obesity is more prevalent in some countries than others, it’s still a widespread phenomenon that affects the health of millions of individuals worldwide.

Obesity Action Coalition informs us that individuals affected by obesity are more likely to develop health related problems such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, respiratory problems and even breast, prostate and colon cancers. However, recent advancements in research have provided surprising results: obesity also increases the risk of periodontal disease and is detrimental to oral health.

How so, you ask? Professor Angelo Tremblay, of Universite Laval, explains that bad eating habits and lack of nutritional food intake triggers poor dental health, which eventually causes individuals to lose their natural teeth. Over time, these individuals lose their ability to chew common healthy foods that are high in nutrients and fibre, thus becoming prone to obesity and develop further dental problems.

What is Obesity?

Many people confuse being overweight with obesity. While the physical characteristics of both conditions may be similar, there is a drastic difference between the two. The main difference comes down to Body Mass Index (BMI), a statistical measure determined by an individual’s’ height and weight. While being overweight means having a BMI of 25-30.9, obesity occurs when an individual reaches a BMI of 31. However, obesity is detrimental to a person’s health and is harder to overcome, whereas being overweight can be controlled through diet and exercise.

How Does Obesity Affect Oral Health?

There are more than forty medical conditions associated with obesity, one of the most prevalent conditions being periodontal disease.

Periodontal disease, also known as gum disease, ranges from simple gum inflammation to serious loss of soft tissue and bone structure that support the teeth. If not treated in time, periodontal disease may lead towards the loss of teeth. On average, most adults have 32 teeth, but tend to lose around 8-9 teeth due to gum disease. According to Tremblay, if adults have less than 21 natural teeth, they are more likely to develop further health related problems such as diabetes.

Obesity is often a direct result of unhealthy eating habits and influences how individuals consume food. While there are many factors that influence obesity, behavioural factors are the leading cause. In today’s fast-paced environment, it’s easier for individuals to adapt an unhealthier lifestyle that translates to poor food choices and less physical activity. Individuals are consuming more calories, receiving less nutrients, and not making enough effort to be physically active. Therefore, obese individuals are at an increased risk of tooth decay and/or cavities because they consume foods that are high in sugar and low in nutrients.

How Can a Dentist Help?

Your dentist is a great source for dietary counselling and screening symptoms of obesity. While many think it would be obvious for someone to realize they’re obese (or on the way to obesity), that is usually not the case. It takes the diagnosis of a healthcare practitioner for many individuals to recognize their obese tendencies.

In this particular case, dental practitioners play a crucial role in helping patients identify symptoms of obesity and can help them fight it early on. During routine checkups, dentists can screen patients and look out for an irregular amount of cavities, plaques or tooth decay among healthy individuals. If a dentist or dental hygienist notices bad oral conditions, they should discuss eating habits with their patients and inform them of the consequences.

Dentists can identify the root cause of cavities by having a discussion with their clients about the different types of food they eat and how it affects their teeth. By acknowledging the body weight (BMI) of patients at each routine checkup, dentists can screen for at-risk patients and offer them direction to a balanced balanced, nutritional diet that promotes a healthier lifestyle. Even though it may be an awkward conversation to have, it’s often necessary for dental practitioners to directly address the role diet plays on oral health and how unhealthy eating habits can lead to obesity.

Moreover, in order to prevent obesity, oral health care practitioners need to work in coordination with other health care professionals such as dietitians and medical doctors. If they observe a drastic change in body weight and/or dietary habits of their patients, a dentist can refer at-risk patients to the appropriate practitioner. Because obesity is a public health concern and needs an integrative approach, more and more dentists are combining these modest interventions geared towards this epidemic.  

Author Bio: Dr. Raj Wadhwani is the founder and lead dentist at Market Hill Dentistry, a practice in Royston. He has special interest in using advance technology for orthodontics, dental implants and gum management and further enthusiasm in laser dentistry and CAD/CAM practices. He also teaches and mentors at the Royal College of Surgeons.

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